Lactantius: Have You Devoted All Your Effort to the Search for Truth?

Feast of St Babylas the Holy Martyr

Lactantius_Square.jpegIN THE DAYS when men of outstanding ability made a serious commitment to learning, they dropped every activity both public and private and devoted all the effort they could spend on it to the search for truth. They thought it far more glorious to investigate and understand the essence of things human and divine than to concentrate on piling up wealth and accumulating honors. Those are fragile and earthly aims, and concern only for the physical self, and so they cannot make anyone a more honest or a more just person. These men certainly deserved their acquaintance with truth: their desire to know it was so strong that they wanted to put it before all else; some abandoned all they had and renounced every pleasure, as is agreed, in order to strip themselves bare and follow virtue pure and simple. The very word virtue and the power of it had so much weight with them that in their judgment it contained in itself the prize of the supreme good.

But they did not achieve their desire; they wasted their effort along with their energy, because truth (which is a secret of God most high, the creator of all things) cannot be grasped by the intelligence and the senses that serve it: there would otherwise be no difference between God and man if the planning and thinking of God’s eternal greatness could be attained by human thought. As it is impossible for divine thinking to become known to man by his own efforts, so God has not allowed man in his search for the light of wisdom to go astray any longer, wandering in inescapable darkness with nothing to show for his toil: eventually He opened man’s eyes and made him a gift of the acquisition of truth, first to demonstrate that human wisdom is non-existent, and then to show the errant wanderer the path to immortality.

Few take advantage of this bountiful gift from heaven; the truth is wrapped in obscurity. Learned men despise it since it lacks suitable champions while the ignorant hate it because of its natural austerity, something that human nature, prone to vice, cannot bear. In all the virtues there is an admixture of bitterness, whereas the vices are spiced with pleasure, and so people are put off by the one and beguiled by the other, and they plunge headlong into the embrace of evil rather than good because they are misled by a phantom of good. In this confusion I am sure that help is needed if the learned are to be directed towards true wisdom and the ignorant towards true religion, and this is a much better calling, more useful and more worth boasting of, than the profession of rhetoric, in which we spent so long training young people not to be good but to be cleverly bad. We shall do much better now to discuss the precepts of heaven, which we can use to aim people’s mind towards the worship of the true greatness; offering knowledge of eloquence does not deserve as well of mankind as teaching the life of duty and innocence. That is why in Greece philosophers were held in greater esteem than orators: philosophers were reckoned to be teachers of how to live well, and that is a much more distinguished business, because speaking well concerns few, but living well concerns everyone. Nevertheless, the practice of pleading imaginary cases has helped me considerably: I can now use my plentiful command of rhetoric to plead the cause of truth to its end. Though truth can be defended, as many often have defended it, without eloquence, nevertheless it ought to be illuminated and indeed maintained with clarity and splendor of utterance, so that it floods into people’s minds more forcefully, with the equipment of its own power and religion and its own brilliance of rhetoric.

—Lactantius: The Divine Institutes

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